A Radical Christianity

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Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful people, and here a number of inspiring speakers.

First last Monday 8th May, the Chris Howson  was the guest speaker at Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, of which I am currently the chairperson.

Chris spoke to us about the challenges of the Gospel message and the call to a Radical Christianity, In particular he spoke of the need for:
1. The message of a Subversive Gospel to be proclaimed.
2. A Compassionate Christianity to be practiced.
3. A Christianity that speaks out for just whatever the cost.
4. The sharing of a Joyful Solidarity with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed.

On the Friday I had been invited to attend the Godly Play conference at Sheffield Cathedral, once again on behalf of Church Action on Poverty. The key speaker that evening was John Bell, well known through the Iona and Wildgoose networks an beyond. John talked about Jesus and the Miracle stories.

He noted that Jesus had “no set approach” to how he performed miracles, each used a methodology particular to its context, sometimes he uses touches, sometimes not …. sometimes they involved groups of people, others only one ….. sometimes they public, and sometimes private, to Jesus a sensitivity to context is crucial. John then went on to show how in the miracle stories Jesus also powerfully addresses powers, authorities and taboos – challenging them is at the very heart of the miracles.

Finally on the Saturday at the Godly Play conference, Peter Privett spoke to us about playful and childhood spirituality. He challenged us all to move from a focus on an “intellectual” faith, to a faith based on experience and wonder. Among the things he left us with were these words from the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:

“Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying “Come dance with Me, come dance.”

 

It’s Friday ….

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These final days of Holy Week are always a special time for me as we contemplate the powers and forces overcome by Jesus on the cross …. there will be time on Sunday to celebrate, but today on Good Friday it’s important to hold onto the pain, the sadness, the cruelty, the betrayal that put Jesus on the cross. Important because, without experiencing the depths of the pain, the victory that has been won is at risk of being cheapened.

We took the decision last week to still run the food bank today despite (or in some ways because) it’s Good Friday, the need for food and especially for the love and grace we try to offer is highlighted not diminished by the crucifixion and passion narrative, we attempt to act as servants who figuratively “wash the feet” of those who come to us for support, without judgement. Some of the folk who came joined in our Good Friday service, others took Palm crosses and prayers, and there was the usual mixture of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety and despair. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard, have both spoken about confidence, suffering and hope in this year’s Easter Message. They ask:

“…Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter?…”

and go on to say:

“…The Christian vocation means feeling and facing the suffering and injustice of the world, alongside God, until new creation is complete. Staying with suffering and tackling injustice is no easy option but is where Christian confidence takes us…”

 

So on this Good Friday, we hold onto the pain and the suffering, the hurt and injustice, because it matters – the powers and forces that put Jesus on the cross are still part of our world today, and reflected (arguably more than on any other day in the church calendar) today. So we hold on to those feelings – we watch and we wait – and we hold onto hope, even when it seems lost. One of my favourite reflections on Good Friday is this one from SM Lockridge, placing us right in the midst of the pain and the sadness:

It’s Friday
Jesus is praying
Peter’s a sleeping
Judas is betraying
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
Pilate’s struggling
The council is conspiring
The crowd is vilifying
They don’t even know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd
Mary’s crying
Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’

It’s Friday
The Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
See Jesus walking to Calvary
His blood dripping
His body stumbling
And his spirit’s burdened
But you see, it’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The world’s winning
People are sinning
And evil’s grinning

It’s Friday
The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet
To the cross
And then they raise him up
Next to criminals

It’s Friday
But let me tell you something
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are questioning
What has happened to their King
And the Pharisees are celebrating
That their scheming
Has been achieved
But they don’t know
It’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
He’s hanging on the cross
Feeling forsaken by his Father
Left alone and dying
Can nobody save him?
Ooooh
It’s Friday
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My King yields his spirit

It’s Friday
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered
and Satan’s just a laughin’

It’s Friday
Jesus is buried
A soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place

But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’!

SM Lockridge – Sunday is coming!

As we served people today at the food bank, and some of us shared in the Good Friday worship in the chapel, these words from Desmond Tutu rang out as a herald for Sunday:

Victory is Ours, so we can say;
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
(Desmond Tutu)

It’s Friday …… but Sunday is coming!

Pastors, Priests and other roles

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It seems like I spend a fair amount of time as a Methodist Pioneer actually defining, and describing exactly what it is I am to myself and to others. It seems to be made more complicated to some because of the fact that I am not ordained, and by the fact that I have work and lay roles that often overlap. As a Methodist Local Preacher (lay) I cannot completely divorce from my day job as Pioneer employed and commissioned by the Methodist Circuit, its impossible; and yet the roles are different. The former brings me into contact and demands I minister (in)to “traditional” mainstream church, the latter calling me to move beyond, to those distanced from that space and those traditions.

So what am I? I’m a pioneer, but I’ve been talked about and addressed as: Pastor, Priest, Lay Minister, Father, Reverend and others…. so let’s explore.

The term “Pastor” derives from the Latin for “Shepherd”,  “Priest” has a more complex linguistic background it seems, emerging from Presbyter (Late Latin) meaning “an elder” and / or  from Latin praepositus a “person placed in charge”. Of course the linguistics aren’t the sole arbiter of what we might now imply and understand by these terms today, but they do give us an interesting start point.

Most obviously Pastor resonates with Jesus words to Simon Peter recorded in John 21.16 “…take care of my sheep”. It suggests a role of care, nurture and guidance “[The role of the pastor is] to help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.” so wrote Eugene Peterson “… [and to] keep the community attentive to God.”  The shepherd also plays a protective role and where necessary sacrificial one (John 10.11) putting the needs of the “flock” above the needs of self. In the mission context in particular perhaps, this latter part can be very real, as people from our little community of volunteers and helpers put themselves into vulnerable positions sometimes with relative strangers; taking food into their homes, drawing close to them in order to in turn minister to (and receive from) them.

I guess priest isn’t a term we use in Methodism with any great regularity, preferring instead the term Minister for those who are ordained. As a pioneer however, I am working both “within” and “outside” the tradition of Methodism, working with, missioning and ministering amongst people not of that tradition, and of no traditions.

“Chaplain” is a term that I sometimes use. indeed I am as part of my role formally recognised as Chaplain in two of our local schools. Traditionally the chaplain role is to be an ecclesial role somehow attached to secular institution. Typically therefore we might encounter chaplains in hospitals, schools, the military etc. However it is an approach to ministry to feels to somehow fit with much of what I am, and the role I play – encountering the secular over the overtly religious, or ecclesial. The Chaplain role is closer to just being – being present, being alongside, being available as a resource, being a friend – but I guess it doesn’t fit the bill entirely in all circumstances.

So if we go back again to those linguistic roots to consider this “priest” role we see again it is one of being “in charge”. Now where I work there’s a bit of a workplace banter around this, one of our community even bought me a giant mug (they understood my addiction to coffee) with the words “THE BOSS” written big on it. Banter yes, because although I try to hold the role very lightly, although I try to encourage and empower others around me – in the end as the person paid by the Circuit to be here, to be responsible – the scary fact (for me) is, I am in charge!

Priest, is in the end understood as a hierarchical term, and that’s probably for me as good a reason as any to steer clear of using it, but at the same time it would be completely wrong of me to deny I have power, I do – and an authority to exercise it within the bounds given to me by the wider Methodist Church. As all Spiderman and Stan Lee fans know “with great power there must also come great responsibility” and the denial of oneself holding any power is not being in least bit responsible. Each of us has power in different situations, and each of us has to decide how we choose to exercise that power – hierarchical power and authority however brings its own issues and complexities.

And so as I undertook my first baptism this Sunday of the beautiful Rebekah Ann, her young life full of hopes and possibilities; and as the parents, godparents, and church were each asked in turn to make our promises and commitments – I felt myself as both priest and pastor. In charge of the occasion, responsible for dutifully and humbly serving  God and the Church through this particular sacrament, and also aware of the part I was playing in helping each one of us there to be attentive to God and the grace that is conferred upon us all.

A Church that makes you better

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Picture1The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was reported to have once said that the Labour Party “…owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. Perhaps it’s worth considering therefore whether the current crisis facing the Labour Party identity has any parallels in the Methodist Church?

At the heart of the appeal from both has been a message that has somehow tried to balance, aspiration, social justice and personal responsibility alongside elements of social conservatism. Wilsons comments may have a sound historical backing to them, after all weren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs Methodists? But it is not the only political history to have been influenced by it, Margaret Thatcher in particular voicing her early Methodist upbringing as an influence on the importance of hard work and personal responsibility , or as she said in her memoirs: “Life was to work and do things.” The “natural” pre-Labour home of many Methodists was the Liberal Party, perhaps therefore it should not overly shock us that Methodism has also had its place amongst neo-liberalism, an ideology not confined to one political party alone.

Some of these differences are also mirrored in the varying historical strands within Methodism, the official website of the Methodist Church outlines some of the differences between the Primitives and Wesleyans:

“The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:

  • The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.
    The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
  • The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship.
    The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
  • The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor.
    The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
  • The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship
    The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.”

 

According to Martyn Atkins in the publication “Discipleship…and the People called Methodists”, Donald English, Methodist minister and twice president of the Methodist Conference, used to say, “Remember, the Methodist people want to be better than they are.”

So in what ways do we hope to become better, as Methodists, as Christians? Primarily I suppose, and I hope, this is grounded in John Wesley theology of Christian Perfection. The idea that we do not have to wait until death to gain an ever closer union with God, that what we are now can be bettered as we move towards the God intended perfection of our humanity as demonstrated and lived in the “wholly human, wholly divine” life of Jesus.

But also the idea of material aspiration has also played a role within Methodism, indeed it is one of the themes warned against by Wesley in his sermon “On the Use of Money”. Wesley urged people to use money as a means of serving God, his call to Christians to:

“Earn all you can,

Save all you can,

Give all you can”

has been used, and misused, as a mantra for hard work, careful stewardship of personal finances, as well as for charitable giving. It’s worth reminding ourselves however, that Wesley was very clear about the moral and ethical boundaries he set out for maximising the money we make, his call to save was not an exhortation to store up earthly wealth but rather to “live simply”, and therefore the primary aim was to give as much as possible of the money gained towards the building of Gods work.

Maybe the Church and the Labour Party do share a problem – maybe we’ve both become so in love with the neo-liberal world that has brought prosperity to the majority of our people, that we’ve forgotten to call out the failings of hard work, and personal responsibility. Hard work is NOT a guarantee of wealth or even nowadays of a decent income for our families, sometimes for some of us earning all we can still doesn’t put food on the table, or pay the bills. Personal responsibility is fine but that also assumes a moral conviction to do what is right, not squirrel money away to avoid tax and other liabilities (however legal this might be). We also need to regain an understanding that personal responsibility doesn’t always remain individual – sometimes our personal responsibility is served through a collective, shared responsibility. Maybe in the Church we have become overly focused on our personal journey and relationship with God, and lost sight somewhat of our collective place in the Body of Christ?

But back to this idea that the church is somehow about making people better …. it’s a question that still intrigues me. At the heart of the Christian message is one of healing, hope and liberation – we follow Jesus because of the hope of something better, the need to have our hurts healed to find a remedy for our faults, to live in a better place, a better world – the Kingdom of God. Maybe today it is in those issues of healing, hope and liberation that we will truly find our greatest needs, and maybe the Church can find its place in this?

 

My “Grubby Jesus”

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img_2714This painting is by Chris Duffet, a fellow pioneer who I met at Breakout Conference last year, it is a piece of art work that he has now worked and reworked in his Pioneer Ministry a number of times. It is a piece of art that when I saw it spoke immediately to me and reminded me of one of my own encounters with Jesus.

I wouldn’t by any means call myself a Christian “mystic”, I’ve got far more reflective friends and colleagues who are nearer that mark, and who remind me, by their very different way of being, that my activism sometimes leaves me with little time to encounter God in this particular way (and maybe that is my loss), but there are, and have been times, when I have encountered what might be called the “mystical”.

The first of these was on my return to faith, after around 30 years of disbelief and atheism. The memory fades over time and seems slightly “less tangible” but it is important to remind myself from time to time. I remember going to bed arguing with a God I didn’t acknowledge (wrestling almost like Jacob: Genesis 32.24-32) saying that I didn’t really believe but IF there was God in the universe, I needed to know, I needed a sense of it. I remember sleeping on and off that night, I remember crying, I remember a brightness and a feeling of being wrapped in a kind of soft cotton wool feeling that I can’t describe, and I remember in the morning waking and knowing I was different, and knowing I had encountered God.

But Chris’ painting reminded me not of that but of a more recent encounter. At the beginning of 2015 I was afflicted with kidney stones (an experience I don’t want to repeat, but one that is commonly repeated once experienced). It finally led to me hospitalised with a severe kidney infection on Thursday evening of Easter Holy Week. For those reading this who want “another” explanation let me say: I know I was ill and had a severe infection, I know I was significant doses of prescribed drugs (including morphine), I know it was Easter and so my mind was set to that mode – but none of these things to me preclude an encounter with the mystical elements of my faith.

It was in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, I was again dozing in and out of conciousness and remember hearing a doctors voice talking in the next set of beds to a very distressed old lady. His calmness, gentleness and compassion were balanced by his authority and command of the situation, he was going to bring healing to her, but first she needed to feel safe. I drifted off again and at some point I remember seeing stood before me my “Grubby Jesus”. I say grubby because he was, he appeared olive skinned but also with a grubbiness that comes from perhaps being on the streets for a long time without good access access to soap and a shower, and he wore a “coat” that again was not dirty as such but that had certainly seen its share of wear and tear.  It was a Jesus who had worked and laboured, who had sat by dirty roads, and in doorways with those living on the streets, a Jesus who was at home with the poor and vulnerable. His face was unknown to me and yet immediately I “knew” and recognised it as Jesus, at that point he held out his hands (as in Chris’ painting) and I heard him say the words “Do you trust me?”, yes I answered – he nodded and vanished. Once again I was left with a strange, unworldly, feeling of peace and happiness that overwhelmed me for some minutes.

I know there are folk who will explain this in completely  “scientific” and “earthly” terms, and put it down to my condition at the time, the drugs, the conversations I’d overheard, my own religious Easter baggage that my mind had brought; and I accept all these things. I also KNOW what I experienced. I know the feeling I experienced, beyond the vision and the words, I know my own reality of the encounter with my “Grubby Jesus”.

And what of my “Grubby Jesus” in the real world, as we call it? Well I suppose I still catch glimpses of him, amongst the people who come for help at the food bank, amongst my friends with learning disabilities and mental health problems, in the community garden and on the allotments, and on the streets of where I live and work. He doesn’t always look the same, but when he catches my eye I recognise him and remember.

Chris Duffets blog can be found at: https://chrisduffett.com/2016/06/16/hands-hands-and-more-hands/

Love Your Neighbour

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Today is June 6th, 72 years ago “Allied” forces fought on the beaches of Northern France in the D-Day landings to start the liberation of Europe from the horrors of Nazism. Thankfully Europe has not seen war in its midst on such a scale since, although sadly it continues in other parts of the globe. Europe however, is facing it’s own very real crisis of identity and politics – the upcoming EU Referendum in Britain is but one part of this.
Whatever the result on the 23rd June the thing that now seems clearest is that from the 24th we will be left with a dis-United Kingdom. It is unlikely that either “side” will win a convincing majority, and  it is quite possible that Scotland, Wales, the North of Ireland will each vote differently to England. Whether #Brexit or #Bremain win the day it is  unlikely that we will have arrived at a view about what being a UK citizen in the 21st Century looks and feels like. The big questions the debate has helped open up will remain; “what do we  (UK) stand for” “who we are” as a nation will still be open to disagreement.
The debate on each side has been dominated by economics and immigration policy – and each side has used its share of negativity and “fear” projections. Each side has also contained its own progressive and reactionary elements within it, at times adding more confusion and haze and fog to an already unclear picture of the true direction of travel following whichever outcome triumphs.
A a Christian I believe that our voting on the day, and our reactions to the result and the re-forming process beyond should largely rest on two key commands (Mark 12. 30-31):
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [and] ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Of course the question that underlies this command, and that any demands our prayerful thought before June 23rd, and constant consideration beyond is “who is [our] neighbour?” (Luke 10.29). Now clearly we live in a world where nowadays it obvious that there is a legitimacy in regarding every person from every nation as our neighbours, so we  need to dig deeper in our response to avoid well intended but essentially glib responses. In my life I’ve had many neighbours; some of them have been good friends, they’ve dropped round for a chat, they’ve helped out in times of need. I’ve also had bad neighbours, neighbours who were noisy, neighbours who have kicked down my door and even stolen from me.
Of course, the Bible tells us of Jesus response to the who is my neighbour question. It’s there in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – once again reminding us that we don’t pick and choose our neighbours, in the same way that good neighbours don’t pick and choose when to do the right thing.  Now of course, if we truly loved our neighbour (and they loved us) in or out would make no difference because the end result would be the same – Love  requires us to do what is best not just for ourselves but our neighbour too, as such love needs no treaty to ensure it is fulfilled.
Whatever the result is declared on 24th June will have a profound effect on the UK , it will undoubtedly effect our own domestic political landscape, it is likely to lead to further questions around the nature of Union and Devolution within the UK, and will also demand further examination of what “Britishness” and being a UK Citizen mean in the 21st century.  How we relate to each other within the UK, Europe and the rest of the world as good neighbours will all need examination following the referendum result, I hope that it is a challenge that Christians will be up to.